war on the rocks

The (Domestic) Politics of Obama’s Defense Bill Veto

October 24, 2015

President Obama’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) came as no surprise. His senior advisors had forecast this move for months. Indeed, the White House turned the veto into a photo op, just to make sure it got plenty of attention. As the photo op would suggest, this veto was about using a national security bill for domestic political purposes.

While much has been written about the NDAA veto, the two most important questions are “Why?” and “So what?”

Why did the president veto the NDAA?

In his veto message, Mr. Obama outlined three main reasons for his action: the budget situation, restrictions on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and the failure to adopt proposed reforms.

The failure to reform is the weakest of these arguments. The vetoed bill was actually one of the biggest defense reform bills in decades. It included major acquisition and military retirement reforms, on many of which Congress leaned further forward than the Pentagon. While even more defense reform remains necessary, to criticize this bill for a lack of reforms is disingenuous.

Reforms the president wanted to see included Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), retiring the A-10, and increasing TRICARE fees. The NDAA actually increased TRICARE fees and cracked the door open to BRAC, while preserving the A-10 fleet. But none of these issues are new, and President Obama has not vetoed previous NDAAs, even though they carried these same provisions.

The Gitmo argument is similarly disingenuous. The bill restricted Mr. Obama’s abilities to close the prison there and transfer detainees to the United States and certain other countries, but these restrictions were first put into place by Democratic Congresses in 2009 and 2010. President Obama has signed NDAAs with similar restrictions every year he has been in office. Clearly, while the president may not like these restrictions, they are not the true motivating factor for this veto.

That leaves the budget situation. The NDAA relies on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding to circumvent the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps. Mr. Obama’s FY 2016 budget proposal sought spending above the BCA caps for both defense and non-defense discretionary accounts (mandatory/entitlement spending like Medicare and Social Security are largely exempt from BCA). However, congressional Republicans want to increase only defense spending, and with good reason. Since 2008, non-defense discretionary spending has gone up by 7 percent, while defense discretionary spending has gone down by almost 15 percent. While the use of OCO funding to circumvent the caps is the wrong way to budget, both senior military officers and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have argued that the Pentagon should take the money anyway.

The real issue is not how the money is being delivered to the Pentagon; it’s that the money is being delivered at all. Regardless of budgetary trends and global security challenges, President Obama has been clear that he will not allow a defense budget increase without a proportional increase to non-defense spending. In the words of one White House statement on the NDAA, the president “will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending.” As much of the press coverage has made clear, this veto was ultimately about non-defense spending — something that cannot be addressed in the NDAA. While vetoing the NDAA is not unprecedented, vetoing it for something that cannot be addressed in the bill is historic — in a bad way.

So what?

Nothing will change overnight because of this veto. Service members will still get paid — and get their pay raise in January. Military operations will continue around the world.

Less certain, however, is the fate of numerous provisions that would strengthen our national security and provide better support to men and women in uniform. The largest single item at risk is the bill’s military retirement reform package, but provisions ranging from sexual assault prevention to lethal defensive aid to Ukraine are now in jeopardy as well.

The House of Representatives is expected to try to override the president’s veto on Nov. 5. If the override fails, the NDAA will be stuck in limbo. In every prior veto of the NDAA, Congress stripped the offending provision and sent the bill back to the White House to become law. In this case, the NDAA itself can’t fix the problem. The resolution hinges on reaching a larger budget agreement.

Still, this veto sends a strong and worrisome message to our troops and allies and adversaries around the world. It signals that President Obama prioritizes domestic spending over security. Better tools for helping our friends in Ukraine, more effectively fighting ISIS, or countering China’s island building — in the president’s opinion, all that can wait until the White House gets its extra $37 billion for domestic programs.

Regardless of what happens next, the use of the NDAA for domestic budgetary leverage is not how Washington should operate and is not good for the security of our nation.

 

Justin T. Johnson is the senior analyst for defense budgeting policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for National Security and Foreign Policy.